In the wake of the Fort Hood shootings by Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an uncomfortable and unjust spotlight has been trained on muslim-American soldiers serving in the armed forces. To be blunt, their loyalties are being questioned, with some conservatives arguing that muslims should be barred outright from serving in the military, invoking the analogy to world war II that we did not commission “japanese nationalists or Nazis”. The implicit premise is of course that an ordinary muslim soldier is akin to a Nazi in terms of ideological loyalty. In truth, however, ordinary Germans and Japanese Americans did indeed serve in World War II with honor and distinction – just as muslim Americans serve today.
However, as Islam is a creed rather than an ethnic background, one can reasonably ask whether there is any conflict with the demands of identity between faith and service. The concept of “Ummah”, or community of believers, is one nearly every muslim believes in a symbolic sense, though I question its pragmatic meaning. Much like the term, “The West”, the Ummah is amorphous and has no formal authority. Muslims in Xianjing province and in Hawai’i (and all muslims in between) have default membership in the Ummah by virtue of shared faith, but to what extent do muslims so far separated actually communicate or interact in any meaningful sense? How can such a vast entity have any cohesion? The sole occassion where the concept of Ummah has any genuine meaning is during the Hajj, where muslims from every corner of the globe unite in pursuit of piety and prayer. But this too, is fleeting. Muslims who sat side-by-side in front of the Kaaba during Hajj share a bond of experience, but after Hajj ends they go back to being cardiologists in Los Angeles or street sweepers in Bangladesh and that bond is, for all intents and purposes, severed.
The Qur’an, however, is clear – muslims should not kill other muslims. There are three verses in particular, [4.92-93] and [17.33],
[4:92] Never should a believer kill a believer; but (If it so happens) by mistake, (Compensation is due): If one (so) kills a believer, it is ordained that he should free a believing slave, and pay compensation to the deceased’s family, unless they remit it freely. If the deceased belonged to a people at war with you, and he was a believer, the freeing of a believing slave (Is enough). If he belonged to a people with whom ye have treaty of Mutual alliance, compensation should be paid to his family, and a believing slave be freed. For those who find this beyond their means, (is prescribed) a fast for two months running: by way of repentance to Allah: for Allah hath all knowledge and all wisdom.
[4:93] If a man kills a believer intentionally, his recompense is Hell, to abide therein (For ever): And the wrath and the curse of Allah are upon him, and a dreadful penalty is prepared for him.
[17:33] Nor take life – which Allah has made sacred – except for just cause. And if anyone is slain wrongfully, we have given his heir authority (to demand qisas or to forgive): but let him not exceed bounds in the matter of taking life; for he is helped (by the Law).
Verse [4.93] is often quoted without [4.92] as essential context, and taking the two together there does seem to be an exception for a “people at war with you” as long as the soldier does pay penance. It is quite possible for a soldier to invoke [4.92] as permiting them to kill muslims in the line of duty of those muslims were at war with the US. One could argue that [4.93] explicitly threatens you with hell if you kill a muslim, but that reading is only supported if you ignore the immediately preceding verse. My own take – and I am not a scholar – is that [4.93] applies to those cases not covered by [4.92]. And let’s also note that “a believer” can also mean Jews and Christians, as explicitly stated in the Constitution of Medina by the Prophet SAW himself.
As far as [17.33] goes it is a general axiom and not limited to muslims killing muslims, but asks the muslim to refrain from taking life whenever possible – but makes a notable exception for “just cause”. Note that Islamic scholars articulated an Islamic just-war theory over a thousand years ago, and wars between muslim nations have been ongoing since after the Prophet’s SAW death to the modern day. The Iraq-Iran war is a good example of a recent such conflict, as is the civil war in Pakistan leading to the creation of Bangladesh.
Naturally, these verses are completely violated in both letter and spirit by groups such as Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, and the extreme factions of the Taliban. By applying extreme punishments on the people they rule – such as stoning or beheading – they are in effect killing believers without “just cause” (for example, the Qur’an requires adultery to have four witnesses before capital punishment, which is a near-impossible standard to meet – which is why these extremists simply fabricate them in their zeal to make an “example”). And their attacks against Western targets routinelly kill more muslims than non-muslims – for example, the 2005 attack on the luxury hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt or the numerous civilian-targeting bombings in Pakistan, such the 2008 bombing at Mariott Hotel in Islamabad.
Another argument made against muslims serving is the concept of wala’ and bara’ – a compilation of various verses from the Qur’an that collectively make the case that muslims should seek to minimize their interactions with non-muslims, and that a muslim’s primary attachments and loyalties should be to fellow muslims. It should be noted that much of this pertains to Christians and Jews who are in enmity or prosletyzing. The main problem here is that this argument is not limited to the military but can be extended to all of Western (non-muslim) civilization. If you accept wala’ and bara’ as binding, then how can you justify remaining in the West at all? These verses do not totally forbid muslims from relations with non-muslims, but offer cautionary warnings.
The bottom line is that the Qur’an provides enough rationale to either permit or forbid a muslim from being in the military, depending on the interpreter’s bias (and sure enough muslim scholars in the West tend to rule muslims may serve, whereas scholars from muslim nations find the opposite). Ultimately, it falls upon the muslim’s own conscience as to whether they can serve their nation.
According to military sources, as of August 2009 there were 3,557 active duty muslims, the majority (1,710) serving in the Army. However, these figures come from voluntary identification, which most muslims may not be inclined to mark. The American Muslim Armed Forces and Veteran’s Council estimates that as many as 20,000 muslims are serving in some capacity – and hundreds of thousands of muslims fought for Britain in WWII. And of course there are crescents aplenty among the crosses at Arlington – including one for Cpl. Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. This photo of Khan’s mother at his grave speaks to any American, regardless of faith.
Related: There’s an active discussion on whether muslims can and should serve at Talk Islam. Hussein Rashid and Wajahat Ali both have excellent, must-read pieces about how blaming muslims who serve only compounds the tragedy. Both NPR and the New York Times have fantastic stories on the challenges faced by muslims in the military. NPR also interviewed James Yee, a former Army captain who was falsely accused and jailed for conspiracy with detainees at Guantanamo. Finally, Sheila Musaji at TAM has a massive compilation of links for further research.